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Oman’s Grand Mufti Condemns Opera House

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As many of you know in a recent video, His Eminence the Grand Mufti of Oman, Sheikh Ahmed bin Hamad Al Khalili, deemed it unacceptable for Muslims to visit the newly opened Royal Opera House in Muscat.

This has caused an explosion of debate on local internet forums and the Arabic blogosphere here in Oman. Blogger Muawiyah Al Rawahi’s letter, on his Arabic blog,  is a good example of the debate going on. I’m secretly pleased with the discussion His Eminence has triggered. It’s very important for Omanis to talk about this and figure out where they stand. (And no, I don’t think we must stand united).

Following a request from one of my readers, thinker & blogger Balqis, here’s the transcript of what he said. It’s a pretty short video (48 seconds).

He was reading a question from a paper:

Question: My Mother, may God grant her health and long life, wants to visit the newly opened Royal Opera House to admire the architecture and beautiful designs. Is this acceptable, given the fact that such venues host musical events known to the world as ‘opera’. This is the main purpose of the venue.

Mufti: Since the dedicated purpose of this venue is music and dance, then visiting it is not acceptable. As for the architecture and designs, they’re not exclusive to this location only and can be found at other locations, and Allah knows best.

If you’re a conservative Muslim, don’t read any further. It may upset you, but I think many younger Omanis share my sentiments.

Firstly, let me say His Eminence has been around for as long as I can remember and is a very much loved and respected person in Oman.

His Eminence has a history of igniting public debate. Earlier this year when Malik Al Mamari, former ROP chief was replaced, His Eminence expressed hope that the new chief would ban all bars in Oman. When cyclone Gonu struck Oman in 2007, he said it was because of our accumulated sins. He’s allowed to express his opinions like everyone else. It’s a free country.

On one hand, I truly respect him and feel his opinions are valid, but on the other hand sometimes I feel they’re irrelevant for me.

The concept of the Royal Opera House is alien to many Omanis, especially ones living in rural areas and villages. In Salalah, most locals don’t know what to think so they’ve chosen to ignore it altogether. According to the last newspaper column from fellow blogger here, a decent number of Omanis are boycotting the ROHM because they feel the money could have been spent on more useful ventures that would benefit Omanis.

Whether His Eminence is keeping up with the modern times is questionable… and whether Islam should keep up with modern times in the first place is also a topic for debate, but in my honest opinion, if you want to instill sound Islamic beliefs in the new (and coming) generations of Omanis, religious leaders must make their teaching relevant.

Our current version of Islam was adapted by religious thinkers over a thousand years ago and many of the laws were developed for political reasons. We follow the Quran, and the Hadiths (Sunna), our second source of Islamic theology. Hadiths are reports of what the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) said and did in his lifetime. Whatever questions the Quran doesn’t answer, the sunna supposedly does. Over the centuries, hadiths have been catalogued by Islamic scholars for our consumption. All we have to do is submit to them (or the ones our Imams choose for us). Does that mean we shouldn’t think? What if entire phrases have been misconceived? The reality of Muslims hundreds of years ago is very different from our reality today.

There, I said it.

Islam supposedly encourages ‘Ijtihad’, i.e. the art of independent reasoning, but scholars today don’t. Believe it or not, the 9th century Baghdad caliph (highest Islamic authority) Al Mamun encouraged a version of Islam that promoted rational thought. Those were the days of Avveroes (Ibn Rushd) and Ibn Sina, some of Islam’s greatest liberal philosophers.

A few generations later, the gates of ijtihad were closed and therefore the tradition of independent thought. In the guise of protecting the Muslim nation from disunity (fitna), Baghdad-approved scholars agreed to freeze debate within Islam. From their politically motivated perspective, everything muslims needed to know was already known. If you had a question, that four existing Sunni schools of thought would address it for you.

Here we are hundreds of years later living with the consequences of a thousand year old strategy to keep the Islamic ’empire’ from imploding.

Let’s get another thing straight; I’m Muslim and I will always be Muslim. I believe in a pure spiritual and peaceful Islam. I also believe in independent reasoning. The Quran may be sent from the heavens, but does that mean man’s interpretation of those holy verses is also holy? Of course not. Quite often I feel the interpretations we have of the Quran may not be as accurate as we’d like to believe. The Quran may be sent from God/Allah/A higher being but most Islamic teachings are man-made. You want to refuse to believe that and continue hiding with your head in the sand? Be my guest.

Our problem with young Muslims these days is that we have a new generation of kids who are smart, worldly and able to think for themselves. Like me, they’re not ready to be spoon-fed a version of Islam from a thousand years ago.

For example, back to the question of music being a sin. Do I believe it’s a sin? Not really. Do I believe listening to music non-stop is bad? Yes, because life’s too short and I should be out in the world doing good. Do I believe rap music (it’s not even music) with crappy language is good? Of course not. Why would I listen to something so negative?

But I think I’m able to choose what kind of music I listen to and whether it contributes to me being a better person. It’s a question of morals, ethics and independent reasoning. I don’t need an Imam to tell me I’m sinning by listening to Tchaikovsky while I do housework.

Another issue that drives me nuts is the battle of religions. I don’t believe Islam trumps over Christianity and Judaism because the Torah and the Bible are from God too, right? How can they be infidels when they follow the same God we do and believe in the same prophets we believe in? Do I think Muslims are the only humans who are getting into heaven? Uh, no. Do many muslims think that? Uh, yes. I think having faith, doing good, and being a good person are what matters.

There are aspects of Islam that I feel have been altered. I’m uncomfortable with Islamic teachings related to killing and war. To me as a young Muslim in this day and age, it’s irrelevant and disturbing. The Islam I want to follow is peaceful, spiritual and relevant. And I maintain the right to think for myself.

Back to the Mufti’s statement about alcohol, I spent five years in a western country at college. College life is all about drinking. I’m confident in saying that I hate alcohol and wish it never existed. I was saddened to see how utterly stupid my peers became after two or three beers. They say it made them feel better, but if you need alcohol to make you feel better than you have a problem.

I was saddened to know that most forms of socializing revolved around alcohol and only alcohol. There were no meaningful activities or conversations when alcohol was involved. And furthermore, drinkers made fun of people who didn’t drink (even for health reasons, like a dear friend of mine who had a serious heart condition). I stayed away from alcohol and made friends with people who were willing to do things that didn’t revolve around drinks. Did I openly condemn drinkers? No. It’s their business. Did I go anywhere near alcohol? No. If you drink, that’s your life, but my life is so much better without it. The world would be a better place without it.

.Another issue that I choose to apply independent reasoning to is the whole chaperone idea for women. In Islam, women need chaperones when they leave their homes. According to Saudi clerics, women should never drive and should be chaperoned even when surfing the internet.

To me, that makes no sense at all. Did I sin by spending five years abroad? I was raised well and my family trusted me. Did I get into trouble? No. Is it a sin to work with men? Apparently yes. But guess what? I don’t want to believe that. . . and I won’t. If I apply independent reasoning to this, it just doesn’t make sense to me that God would create men and women then condemn women to their homes. I’d like to think that men and women were put here on this earth to do good and work side by side to make this world a better place. Those are just some of the issues that have forced me to re-think the Islam I was taught in school here in Oman.

But you know something? I respect His Eminence the Grand Mufti. I respect all Muftis. Their hearts are in the right place. We need Sheikhs and Imams and Muftis and religious leaders because very few Muslims want to dive into independent reasoning. They want to be told what to believe in. Their faith is what keeps them going. Never mock that. If that’s what suits them, then let them be. If that guy really was worried about taking his mother to the opera house, then bless his heart, and he’s lucky he has the Grand Mufti to turn to. And I truly respect the Mufti for taking the time out to answer people’s questions.

I was born with a mind of my own and I’m sure God intended for me to use it. I read a lot and think a lot and I truly believe the Quran is a beautiful and wonderful holy book and that Islam is a beautiful religion…. true Islam. However, original Islamic practices have mingled in with our Arab traditions over centuries and today we find ourselves with a version of Islam that isn’t necessarily the one we were intended to follow. The pillars of Islam and the faraidh فرائض are clear, thank goodness, but so many other teachings leave me with a huge question marks above my head. I choose to apply my own independent reasoning to some teachings of Islam that were developed by men over a thousand years ago and that seem irrelevant to my reality.

Humans aren’t perfect, and the men from centuries ago who developed the Islam that we follow today had their hearts in the right place, but that doesn’t mean they were right about everything. Man’s interpretation skills can suck sometimes.

Again, I respect the Mufti’s opinion and I wish him health and long life. He has every right to speak his opinion and that applies to me and you as well.He’s a remarkable person and very dear to us Omanis. His deputy, Asst. Grand Mufti Dr. Kahlan Al Kahrusi is expected to become the Grand Mufti of Oman in the event of Al Khalili’s death (may Allah grant him long life). For those of you who are unfamiliar with Dr/Sheikh Kahlan, he is also a truly remarkable person. He’s quite young and very educated/worldly. He spent years studying (and teaching) at Oxford and obtained his Masters and doctorate in Islamic studies from there. Along with his academic credentials, he has a wealth of research experience working at the Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs in Oman as a researcher and advisor for His Eminence the Grand Mufti. He was only appointed as the Assistant Grand Mufti in 2010. I had the honor of meeting him briefly right after his appointment and I think the future of Islamic research in Oman is in good hands. I really liked him.

And finally, as outrageous as this post may seem, keep in mind that I’m still learning. That’s the beauty of it. That’s the beauty of Islam. I will continue to study and think. The minute your opinions become fixed, that’s when you stop learning.

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